Israeli Campaign Turned Its Back on Most Pressing Issues

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MAALE ADUMIM, West Bank -- From the deck of a swank new cafe at the edge of this sprawling Jewish settlement, customers gaze out at a large patch of desert that is the latest point of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People here, and in the Israeli leadership, hope that the land will soon become an unbroken chain of roads and homes linking their community to Jerusalem. But Palestinians -- along with much of the world -- see it as a critical part of their future state.

Yet a few days before the Israeli national elections on Tuesday, many of the settlers here said the existential question of what would happen in the West Bank was not their top concern. In this campaign, voters here and elsewhere said, the issues that have been staples of Israeli politics for generations have been largely invisible, and social values or pocketbook concerns have been front and center. "Sometimes you have to know there is no solution right now, put that aside and think of other things," said Shlomo Cohen, 46, a landscaper who wears the signature knitted skullcap of the so-called national-religious sector.

If there is a consensus among voters and analysts alike of what by most accounts has been a moribund campaign, it is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to win a third term -- despite a gaping deficit, despite a stalemated peace process, despite having a political partner indicted on fraud charges and even though he waged a war with Gaza to mixed reviews.

The headlines from Israel's 2013 campaign have been about the failure of a fragmented center and left to field a credible challenger to Mr. Netanyahu, and the emergence of an emboldened national-religious party with a hard-line position on the Palestinian conflict. As the Middle East's most stable democracy turns inward, experts say a growing majority of Israelis have given up on the land-for-peace paradigm that has defined the debate for decades, cementing the country's shift to the right in politics, policy and public discourse. That promises to complicate Mr. Netanyahu's already strained relations with President Obama, as Israel faces international condemnation for its continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

"Israeli society today is in despair," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. "And despair is a dangerous political place, because despair can yield extreme temptations."

It has been the least competitive election in memory, and the least substantive; one columnist wrote Sunday that "an indifferent and yawning Israel" was heading to the polls. Each party seems to be on a different playing field, in terms of priorities, as Mr. Netanyahu's dominant Likud-Beiteinu faction has campaigned neither on issues nor accomplishments, failing to even produce a formal platform, but on the simple theme of strength. Experts say there is an unusually high percentage of undecided voters in the campaign's final days.

Bambi Sheleg, a religious former settler who now runs a centrist magazine, Eretz Acheret, said the campaign is "like a plaster over the real issues." David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the 2013 vote was Israel's "Seinfeld election" -- about nothing -- and said it would yield no clear policy mandate, giving the new government "maximum flexibility." Etgar Keret, a celebrated Tel Aviv short story writer and filmmaker, lamented a lack of "urgency or passion" among the candidates.

"In a metaphorical way, we are choosing the new captain of the Titanic," Mr. Keret said. "When you say to them, 'What about the fact that there is water coming in,' they say, 'You know, I really don't want to talk about that.' Right now we really don't need a prime minister who will continue sailing our ship to the horizon, we need somebody who will know what to do when our ship hits an iceberg."

One immediate challenge for the new government will be a $10 billion deficit. The divisive matter of whether ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens should go into the military or perform national service, punted by Mr. Netanyahu last summer, is also looming. The prime minister has said the time to decide whether to strike Iran's nuclear program is this spring or summer. And then there is the perennial Palestinian question, with European leaders promising renewed pressure to return to negotiations even as the militant Hamas faction seems to be gaining strength.

An average of the public polls published Thursday and Friday suggests that candidates from Likud-Beiteinu will win 35 of Parliament's 120 seats, down from its current 42. The next largest party looks like left-leaning Labor, with average 16 seats, followed by 14 for the new Jewish Home party, whose charismatic leader and hawkish stance on the Palestinians have been the most dynamic aspects of the campaign.

Perhaps more important, the bloc of right-wing and religious parties are expected to total 62 to 71 seats, according to the polls, leaving Mr. Netanyahu in a strong position to form the next government, though it remains unclear whether he will reach out to the center or stick with staunch conservatives.

"Now's the time to come together to tackle the big issues," said David M. Weinberg, a Likud supporter who helps run the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He suggested that Mr. Netanyahu begin by inviting Tzipi Livni, the centrist former foreign minister, into his government, saying that by doing so he "would recapture his place as one of Israel's strongest leaders."

Many analysts see the campaign as a watershed on two fronts: the collapse of the center-left and the rise of the national-religious community -- also called religious Zionists -- mainly through Jewish Home, which advocates annexing the swath of the West Bank where most settlers live.

In the face of Mr. Netanyahu's strength, the opposition failed to unite behind a single candidate, or even agree on an agenda. Instead, the center-left leaders spent much of their time discussing whether they would join a Netanyahu-led coalition.

"From my point of view, it's worse than the right," said Tzaly Reshef, a Jerusalem lawyer who helped found the Peace Now movement. "With the right what you see is what you get."

On the right, Naftali Bennett of Jewish Home emerged as the darling of the campaign, attracting voters with his hawkish policies and his persona: he is 40, wears a knitted skullcap, was an officer in an elite army unit and made millions in high-tech before entering politics.

Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent national-religious leader, said Mr. Bennett echoes the secular kibbutz pioneers who built Israel in the 1950s, "but with kippa, with yarmulke on the head."

"This is the new population of the religious Zionists: a new generation grew up and said, 'We don't want to be secondary, we want to lead,' " Rabbi Lau said. "It's a question of self-identity, not the policy but the place they want to take on the stage. This is why so many young people want to vote for that. They want to be proud."

Yedidia Z. Stern, a law professor and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that another way to understand Israel's shift is to look at the probable makeup of the next Parliament, which is expected to have 40 to 50 new members, the largest turnover in its history. About 40 lawmakers will be Orthodox, Mr. Stern said, nearly half of them living in West Bank settlements. Only one kibbutz resident, himself a former settler, is expected to make it.

"This Parliament will be populated by many extremists," Mr. Stern said. "The politics of identity are becoming more and more sharp. Every sector wants to rule, not just survive. Everyone thinks their way is the best for all the Jews."

Over cappuccinos and fruit shakes at the cafe here in Maale Adumim on Friday, Yafit Hayon, 43, who works for the Jerusalem municipality, said she is ardently supporting Mr. Netanyahu because "he will take care of Maale Adumim; he won't return it."

But at the next table, Rivi and Yedidya Zuntz, teachers who backed Mr. Netanyahu in 2009, are moving further to the right to support Mr. Bennett. "He reflects my religious side more," said Mr. Zuntz, 40. "Bennett's values are important to me."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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